M. N. Roy Jawaharlal Nehru



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BHISHMA

Bhishma was the Kuru sage of the Mahabharata period. He was not only the most authoritative exponent of rajadharma, as discassed and told in the great Epic, but his contribution to the development of the Hindu political thought in ancient India was also of outstanding historical significance.

The Mahabharata

The Mahabharata, as called by its authors, is an Itihasu, a Purana, an Akhyana, a Samhita, a Kavya and the source and basis of all the legends.1 It is known as the fifth Veda,1 namely the Krishna Veda, i.e., the Veda of Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa and the essence of other Vedas. By itself it is equal to, nay, even greater than the remaining Vedas. One, who does not have a knowledge of this highly important work, is not a learned man even though one may be an acknow­ledged scholar cf the Vedas and the Upanishads.3 "

Besides these, it is a Dharmasastra, an Arthasastra and a Karma-sastra. There is much trust in Vyasa's challenge that 'That which occurs here about dharma, artha, kama and moksha (the four ends of human life), occurs elsewhere and that which does not occur here, occurs nowhere else."4 It is really an encyclopaedia in which diver­gent and even contradictory ideas on religion, morals, social and economic conditions and politics are put in close juxtaposition. It is a whole literature in itself, containing a code of life, a philosophy of social and ethical relations and speculative thought on human prob­lems that is hard to rival.

But the Mahabharata is equally important from the point of view of politics, because herein we get a comprehensive account of ancient Indian political thought, the highest watermark being reached in the Santi Parva, and the Rajadharmanusasana chapters which present a synthetic and systematic view of the political thought of ancient Indians. And it is in the Santi Parva, the twelfth Parva of the Maha-



  1. Mahabharata, Adi Parva, } & II.

  2. Ibid., II, 63, 89, Vide Mullick : Mahabharata, p. 6.

3 Mahabharata, II, 382.
A Ibid., LXII, 53 :

sw =ett^ ^ *pr*r ^ ttst w vnmn I







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bharata* that we come across the political thought of Bhishma, which forms the subject-matter of this chapter.

Bhishma : Exponent of Rajadharma



The Mahabharata theorist appraises Bhishma's discourses in the Santi Parva as his most authoritative exposition of rajadharma and con­nected topics. When Yudhishthira at the end of the Great War asked Vyasa about the duties of kings as well as those of the four castes, the sage referred him to the omniscient Bhishma, who was versed in all the duties, and this advice of the sage was fully backed by Sri Krishna. When the sages and the surviving warriors of the Great War proceeded to act accordingly, the sage Narada advised them8 to make no delay in questioning the aged Bhishma who knew all the varied duties of the four castes. Then Sri Krishna,7 speaking directly to Bhishma, endowed him with his own divine wisdom to qualify him for his task, and he blessed Bhishma's address beforehand by prophe­sying that it would last on earth like a Vedic discourse. All these references point to the exceptionally high authority intended in the Mahabharata to attach to Bhishma's teaching. Reference may also be made, finally, to the solemn setting of the whole scene, in which the dying Ulysses of the Kuru race is made to utter his addresses as his last political testament to the assembled sages and kings headed by Yudhishthira.


  1. The Mahabharata is divided into eighteen Parvas (books), namely the Adi, the Sabha, the Vana, the Virata, the Udyoga, the Bhishma, the Drona, the Kama, the Salya, the Sauptika, the Stri, the Santi, the Anusasana, the Asvamedhika, the Asramavasika, the Mausala, the Mahaprasthanika and the Svargarohana.

  2. Mahabharata, XII, 54, 1-9.

  3. Ibid., XII, 54, 27-28.

Bhishma's political ideas, like those of Manu and Yajnavalkya, involve the blending of the old Smriti tradition with the teaching of the technical Arthasastra. This blending, however, is more conscious in the one case than in the other, for Bhishma repeatedly quotes as his authorities single texts and even whole discourses purporting to have been composed by the masters of the technical science. The distinctive feature of Bhishma's teaching consists in its extensive as well as intensive development of the older lines of our political thought. Among his most notable and original contributions are his theories of rajadharma and dandaniti, his theory of the king's authority, his theory of public rights of the social classes and the community, his view of the principles of government, his discussion of the moral standards of the king's policy in exceptional circumstances, and his theory of Brahmanical immunities (founded upon the conception of the Brahmana's birth-right of universal ownership de jure as well as that of co-ordination of the two powers in their common interest and


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in the interest of the community). Again Bhishma, like Manu, men­tions side by side the Smriti and Arthasastra principles relating to a king's act in fighting his enemy.

We start our examination of Bhishma's theories of rajadharma and dandaniti in the context of his remarkable development of the old Smriti concept of the whole duty of the king. Rajadharma is used in the Mahabharata in two meanings, the royal duties and politics (dandaniti). Its latter itnse is confirmed by the fact that one whole section of the Santi Parvu dealing with the rules, relating specifically to the art of government, u known as the Rajadharmanusasana Parva. Therein it has been regarded cs the most important science and as the refuge of all other branches of knowledge. Its (dandaniti's) full knowledge is indispensable for a ruler. If strictly followed by the rulers it leads to prosperity and well-being of the ruled.8 Hence, rajadharma is not only related to dandaniti, but the performance of the former is wholly dependent upon the latter.


8 Santi Pan-, LXIV, 29-30.

9 Ibid., Chapters 63-66. 10 Ibid., 63, 24.



Rajadharma, as given by Yudhishthira interpreting the basic ideas of Bhishma, is the refuge of all living creatures. It is not only the threefold end of life but salvation itself depends upon it. ' The kingly duty (dharma) is held to be the means of controlling the world, just as the reins are unto the steed and the goad is unto the elephant. Should the dharma observed by the royal sages become confused, dis­order would set in, in this world and everything would be plunged in confusion. Just as the rising Sun dispels unholy darkness, so does the rajadharma destroy all evil consequences in this world. Bhishma's view of rajadharma* is repeatedly conveyed to us by his comparisons with human values. "Much has been achieved for the world of mortals," he says at the outset,10 "by Kshatriyas fulfilling the highest duty (dharma)," and he quotes Vedic authority for his statement that all the duties of the three upper classes together with their auxiliaries spring out of the king's dharma. All other dharmas, he explains, are swallowed up in rajadharma, just as the footprints of all creatures are swallowed up in those of an elephant. Bhishma further observes that while all other dharmas afford little relief and produce small benefit, the dharma of the Kshatriya alone brings much relief and confers great benefit. All dharmas, he sums up, have rajadharma as their chief, while renunciation, all religious initiation and all religious exercises are fixed in rajadharma. The unique position of rajadharma is justified by him by the conception of its pre-eminent function in relation to the community. Should dandaniti (here significantly identi­fied with rajadharma) be lost, he remarks, the three Vedas would sink and all dharmas would be mixed up. The dharmas of the four orders and those of the castes are established and sustained by the dharma of the


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Kshatriya. Bhishma quotes in this connection11 the discourse of God Vishnu (disguised as Indra) to king Mandhata. "I have," says the king, "won immense and immeasurable regions and have established my fame by means of the Kshatriya's dharma, but I do not know how to perform the highest dharma deriving its origin from the Primeval Deity." The Kshatriya's dharma, replies the God, flowed from the Primeval Deity, and then came other dharmas, which are as it were, its appendages: all other dharmas are included in this dharma, and therefore it is declared to be the highest.

The functional importance of rajadharma is supported by its ethical significance. Speaking on the ethical value of rajadharma Bhishma tells" that the Kshatriya's dharma is the foremost of all dharmas and that without it people would be ruined. While renunciation is declared by the sages to be the foremost of virtues, the renunciation of one's body in battle (this being the king's highest duty) is the chief of them all. For establishing the four castes in their respective duties and for ensuring their protection, Kshatriya-dharmas which include all other dharmas within their scope, are held to be foremost. Those who are without restraint and are misdirected towards the pursuit of worldly objects are men of the nature of beasts, while Kshatriya-^Aarma is the best "inasmuch as it leads from the greed of possession to proper conduct." In the next chapter of Santi Parva (XII, 66) the warrior sage shows by a series of elaborate parallels how the king attains the fruits of different orders (asramas) severally and collectively by fulfilling different groups of his duties. The king by following his duty of protection, Bhishma concludes, wins a hundred times as much merit as is required by those (ascetics) who live in the forest and those who belong to the four orders.

Bhishma's above explanation of the concept of rajadharma in­volves the application of the old smriti principle of the fundamental importance of the king's office. Rajadharma, Bhishma further explains, is the fundamental social and political principle ensuring complete fulfilment of human ends as well as universal security. It represents quantitatively the most comprehensive, qualitatively the most fundamental, and ethically the most perfect group of human activities. This high estimate is justified primarily by its two-fold function in ensuring collective security as well as stability of the social order founded upon the law of its constituent units. Bhishma clinches his argument by declaring that politics is the most compre­hensive branch of individual and social ethics.

Rajadharma and Dandaniti


  1. Ibid., 19-29.

  2. Ibid., 65.

Bhishma's view of the function of dandaniti shows almost the


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same line of argument as his idea of rajadharma. Should dandaniti perish, we are told,13 the three Vedas would disappear and the duties would be mixed up. When dandaniti is lost and rajadharma is aban­doned, says God Indra quoting Bhishma,1* the creatures are afflicted with confusion through the tyranny of kings, while by contrast when sinful men are restrained by high-souled persons (i.e., kings) by means of dandaniti, the law (dharma) does not falter. Bhishma further observes that when dandaniti is properly applied by the king, it keeps the four castes within the limits of their distinctive duties and guards tbem from the reverse. Like Manu, he tells that the king is the maker of his epoch. Expanding his argument, he explains how the Krita, the Treta, the Dvapara and the Kali Ages arise according to the application of dandaniti by the king. Hence Bhishma, for all practi­cal purposes, identifies dandaniti with rajadharma.

Concept of Kingship

Related to his theories of rajadharma and dan daniti is Bhishma's concept of kingship. His concept of kingship again involves the two­fold principle of the early Smritis, namely, that of the authority and the obligation of the temporal ruler. To begin with, he bases the king's authority in the first chapter of Santi Parva (XII, 67) upon a dogmatic interpretation of the king's origin. Bhishma draws an imaginary picture of an evil state of nature without a king. It was a state of confusion and anarchy wherein the people met with des­truction by devouring one another. Being fed up with this state of confusion, the people collectively went to Brahma and prayed for a lord whom they might honour and who would protect them. The Great God ordained the patriarch Manu for this task. An agreement was signed between Manu and the people. After the agreement Manu went forth with all his forces, striking terror into the hearts of all evil-doers, subduing the wicked and making the people follow their respective duties and occupations.


  1. Ibid., 63, 28.

  2. Ibid., 65, 24-27.

Bhishma gives another story of the origin of kingship. The warrior-sage tells Yudhishthira that in the Krita Age there was neither kingdom nor king, neither chastisement (danda) norchas-tiser but all the people nevertheless protected themselves by the rule of righteousness (dharma) alone. But gradually the people lost their right perception and then lost their sense of righteous­ness. Hence confusion and anarchy set in. Thereupon the gods in great alarm sought the protection of Brahma who, in turn, prepared His archetypal work on the science of polity (dandaniti), which was summarized successively by gods-and sages for the benefit of mankind. The gods then addressed themselves to Vishnu and requested Him to ordain someone who deserved the highest place


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among men, and so the kingship came into existence. The seal of Divine sanction was set upon Prithu when Vishnu Himself fixed the king's status. Prithu was called king since all his subjects were gratified by him.

Discovering the king's super-human quality, Bhishma observes that a person whose stock of spiritual merit is exhausted, comes down from heaven to earth and is born as a king versed in the science of polity. Since the king is established by the gods, no one transcends him, and everyone submits to him if he acts according to the pre­scribed principle. Good deeds lead to good results, and it is for this reason that the world obeys the command of one man, although he is its equal. The sage concludes that thenceforth it has constantly been proclaimed by the learned that gods and the lords of men are equal. We understand from Bhishma's discussion about the origin of kingship that the king derives his authority from the Divine ordina­tion augmented by his absorption of Vishnu's personality to which is added the minor principle of his good karma done in a previous birth.

The Authority and Functions of the King

After discussing Bhishma's concept of the origin of kingship, we now turn to his development of the old Smriti views of the signi­ficance of the king's office and functions. Bhishma explains the fundamental importance of the king's office in the interest of the individual and the community. A kingless country, we are told, is overwhelmed by robbers : in such a land the people devour one another and those who live cannot enjoy the rights of family and property : one man robs two others and many more rob the two ; he who is not a slave is made a slave : the women are forcibly abducted : the strong would roast the weaker 'like a fish on a spit,' if the king were not to function as wielder of punishment: in such a country the duties (dharmas) are not observed, and the fire does not convey offerings to the gods.

The above views of Bhishma carry forward the ideas of high significance of the king's office and functions beyond the point reached so far in the history of our ancient political thought. Bhishma, going a step further than Manu who takes the king's office to be the symbol of that of the divine ruler, declares it to be the foundation of indivi­dual security as well as the stability of the social order, the basis of the great institutions of family and property, the support of the fun­damental law of the social order, and the guarantee of the normal functioning of the social, economic and religious activities of the people. The king is declared to be the maker of his epoch, not in a general sense through the degree of fulfilment of his functions, but specifically through the degree of his application of the science of polity.

But Bhishma, while discussing the significance of king's authority,




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tells that the king must give up his likes and dislikes and that he should fearlessly perform acts based on law (dharma) and behave impartially towards all creatures, casting off the passions of pleasure, anger, greed and pride. He should punish with his own hands any one disregarding his position and duties and he should observe the eternal law. The principle of the king's obligation is based by Bhishma after the early Smriti pattern upon the doctrine of supremacy of the law of the social order. This principle (of the king's obligation) is also supported, as given by Bhishma, by the conception of a quasi-contract between the ruler and his people. He gives a lesson16 on the king's righteous ways of protecting his people with a high eulogy of the same : when the king protects the people and shows compassion to creatures, we read, that is declared by those conversant with the law to be the highest duty.

As regards the principle of the king's coercive authority (technically called danda), Bhishma's ideas correspond broadly to those of Manu. Yudhishthira observes that danda is the lord on whom depends everything, and that the omni-present danda is the foremost among all beings from the gods and the sages down to the birds and the beasts. Bhishma in reply describes the status and function of danda in words surpassing the powerful description of Manu. Danda, we read, is a mighty Deity with multiple forms, weapons and names corresponding to its diversified nature, and it comprises within its scope multiple and contradictory qualities : danda, in fact, is the great god Narayana : should there be no danda, the people would grind one another, and it is through the fear of danda that they do not kill one another : when the people are constantly protected by danda, they enhance the might of their ruler, and therefore danda is held to be the refuge of all. The most important aspect of this discourse is con­cerned with the mutual relation of danda, law (dharma), and the king. Brahma has laid down the Veda or the dharma, the ultimate object of which is the undisturbed continuity of the established and eternal order of things : the danda is the means placed in the hands of the king for the smooth running of all human affairs on the path of dharma.

Class Rights


15 Ibid., 72, 26-27.



Bhishma was also conscious of the class rights, and his ideas regarding them mark some important development in comparison with those of Manu. Manu, while solemnly warning the king against the consequences of his misrule, is silent about the part of the com­munity (other than the Brahmanas) in resisting tto evil ruler. The case is otherwise with Bhishma. In an enumeration of six persons who should be abandoned like a split boat at sea, Bhishma includes the king who fails to give protection. The bad king is included in a


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similar enumeration of persons and places that should be shunned from afar. Bhishma takes a boldeF attitude towards the problem and tells that the king, whose ministers are dishonest and sinful and who is the destroyer of righteousness (dharma), deserves to be slain, and be quickly languishes with his family.1* Here Bhishma unequivocally tells the people (prajah) that they should arm themselves and kill a king who does not protect them, who plunders their wealth, who obliterates all distinctions, who is incapable of taking their lead, who is without compassion and who is evil incarnate among kings. When the king fails to protect the people after giving them his word for protection, Bhishma concludes, they should combine together and slay him like a mad dog that is afflicted with the rabies.

Bhishma also takes up the problem of the behaviour of the Brahmanas in a conflict with political authority. He tells that the spiritual power (Brahma) alone must restrain the temporal power when it has grown overbearing especially towards Brahmanas, for the spiritual power is the source of the temporal power. Bhishma asserts the Brahmana's claim to be defended by others during a collapse of the social and political order. He also permits the Brahmana to take up arms in his own defence and in defence of the social and political order. According to Bhishma, the community, like the Brahmana, is also justified in resisting the incompetent or the evil ruler. Here his views are in line with those of Manu. It follows from the ideas of Bhishma that although the king is in outward form a divinity of superior or inferior grade, he is essentially subject to the rule of law.

Tnter-State Relations


16 Ibid., 137, 89-90,



Bhishma has also dilated on the policy of inter-state relations. He repeats the old Arthasastra categories and concepts under this head, such as the four expedients, the three powers (sakti), and the six forms of foreign policy (guna). Bhishma's fundamental criterion for the selection of the types of foreign policy like that of Manu is the Arthasastra principle of expediency. The king, he tells, should make peace with those with whom it should be made and wage war with those with whom it should be waged. The king should make peace with a powerful enemy in consultation with his ministers when he finds himself to be weak ; he should make peace with the enemy when his weakness is not known, or when he expects an advantage therefrom ; he should undertake an expedition against the enemy who is at war with another and therefore heedless and is weak. The king's subjects should be prosperous and loyal, his ministers should be happy and contented, and his troops should be happy and well-equipped and capable of overreaching the enemy ; the king should be superior to his enemy in material resources and in strategy.


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An important branch of the policy of inter-state relations is discussed by Bhishma under the head of the king's policy towards his enemies. The king, we are told" in the course of an enumeration of the royal duties, should break up the enemy's ranks by straight­forward as well as deceitful means ; the powerful king must not dis­regard even his weak enemy, for even a small spark causes a flame and even a slight poison causes death, while the enemy taking refuge in a fort even if he is equipped with a single horse afflicts the kingdom even of a prosperous king. When asked by Yudhishthira how a king can save himself from being overwhelmed by the combined attack of his enemies, Bhishma points to the king's esoteric policy in times of distress. It is through exigencies of circumstances, we read, that the enemy becomes a friend and the friend is alienated, and the king's policy should be adjusted accordingly. One should impose trust and wage war after considering the factors of place and time in the matter of deciding what should and what should not be done ; peace should be made with an enemy so that one's life may be preserved. Even the wise man who completely deceives others by the application of his intellect, Bhishma sums up, is deceived by the foolish through his own heedlessness. One should appear to be fearless and while distrusting others, appear to be trustful. Those who know the truth declare that peace should be made with an enemy and war declared with a friend according as the occasion demands the same.

The Standard of Government

As regards Bhishma's general attitude towards the standard of the king's government, he not only defends it by reference to one of his characteristic principles, namely, that the law of the Kshatriya order is above and beyond morality, but he magnifies it as the highest of all such standards by virtue of another principle, namely, that the king's function of protection has the utmost ethical significance. Going into fuller detail, he mentions a four-fold standard of duty. This compromises the two fresh standards of reasoning and expediency, supplementing the primary Smriti standards of the sacred canon and convention (or custom). As regards the standard of expediency, Bhishma while confirming its application to the purpose of self-defence alone, emphatically declares it to be based upon the lessons of experi­ence. What is more, he, instead of following the Smriti principle of the superiority of the canon to convention, boldly pleads for joint application of the four standards, while he repeatedly and emphati­cally condemns a too strict adherence to the canonical authority. In support of his standard of e>, -/ediency, Bhishma mentions three justi­fying principles borrowed fro ji the old Smriti-Arthasastra tradition. These are the principles of the Kshatriya's distinctive duty (swadharma) based upon the Smriti doctrine of supremacy of the law of the social

17 Ibid., 58, 6 ; 16-18.



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order, Smriti principle of duties of the castes in times of distress (apaddharma) based upon the concept of the individual's fundamental right of self-preservation, and the principle of supreme importance of the state in the interests of the individual and the community. The first principle leads to the point that the Kshatriya's duty is indepen­dent of the conventional moral standards so as to justify the king in confiscating the property of his subjects (as a last resort) fcr the sake of preserving the state. The second principle leads Bhishma to formulate a dangerous doctrine that violence is the law of life (especially of the ruler) so as to justify the king's seizure of the pro­perty of the rich in an emergency. The third principle indicates that the state is the foundation of dharma as well as the safeguard of the bare life of the ruler and his subjects. This goes to justify the ruler in raising the revenue as well as the army by force. Thus, to con­clude, it may be stated that the ideas of Bhishma mark the most com­plete application of the spirit of ancient Indian rationalism to politics.

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